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Bad weather and lack of confidence: fewer shoppers hit UK high streets in March

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Shoppers stayed away from the high street in March, new figures suggest. But although snowstorms dubbed the Beast from the East may have made the downturn more severe than it otherwise might have been, these figures appear to be part of a longer-term trend that is seeing shoppers move further online to buy, says the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

The number of people visiting shops fell by 6% in March, according to the latest BRC-Springboard Footfall and Vacancies Monitor. A year earlier, footfall was up by 1.3%, while the 12-month average to this March is a decline of 1.4%.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC said: “Whilst the prolonged period of bad weather has had an impact on shoppers visiting the high street, we are seeing a longer term trend of reduced footfall which highlights that shoppers face more choice in terms of how, where and when they shop. The retail environment is changing and retailers are investing in innovation and technology adaptations in response to this. Policy-makers must also play their part with a vision for a modern business taxation system which reflects this new environment.”

Numbers fell most sharply on the high street, where footfall was down by 8.6 per cent, but no locations were immune. Retail parks saw a 1.8% drop in footfall while shopping centre visitor numbers were down by 4.8% on last time, the report suggests.

No areas of the UK escaped the downturn. The largest declines were seen in Greater London (-7.5%) the South East (-6.5%), and in the East Midlands (-5.6%). While snow may have been a factor in the fall, the cold snap, which started on February 24, finished early in the month on March 4. Heavy rain followed over subsequent weeks.

Diane Wehrle, Springboard marketing and insights director, said: “The severe weather put paid to any glimmer of hope for an uplift in shopper activity in March. Hitting the week following the pay day weekend was the worst timing possible as it meant that shoppers who had available budget deferred trips. A proportion of this was made up over Easter, with footfall in shopping centres and retail parks rising from last Easter but this was more than offset by the impact of the heavy rain on high streets. Indeed, throughout the month we were able to track the impact on footfall each day as adverse weather moved across the UK.

“Comparing the weekly trend with annual change in footfall enables us to see the fundamentals underlying shopper activity. So whilst footfall was hit hard in the first week of the month, declining by -17.1% from the week before, it bounced back, rising by +25.5% in the second week and by an average of +2.3% over the month, demonstrating that deferred trips were reinstated when the weather improved.

“But the bounce back was based on a reduced shopper pool compared with last year, with the significant annual decline of -6% over the month demonstrating that there is reduced shopper activity this year than in 2017. This is undoubtedly a function of low consumer confidence arising from ongoing economic constraints attached to current price inflation and concern for the future, exacerbated by the underlying structural shift in consumer habits away from purely transaction based activity towards activity with a leisure focus.”

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